One of the Worst Feelings in the World…

Some of the links in this post are from our sponsors. Read our disclosure to see how we make money.

the worst feeling in the world

We all have things in our lives that we’d rather soon forget. Whether it be the death of a loved one, losing a job, or being under what feels like a mountain of debt, none of them are terribly fun and have their own set of unique crappy circumstances. I remember when I was under my mountain of credit card debt; it felt like I had a piano sitting atop my chest restricting my breath. The best I could hope for was quick, short breaths because anything else hurt too much; the enormously large amount of debt I owed saw to that.

Sadly, this debt was not because something had happened to me, but was because I was plunking down that credit card like there was no tomorrow. Whether it was a CD, or ten (I know I am dating myself here), a late night snack, or a trip I wanted to take, I was flexing that plastic muscle.

I have shared pieces of this in past posts but not the entire picture. I was so close to declaring bankruptcy that it seemed that nothing would change and that the tunnel was just unending darkness with no light at the end of it. Being 15 years removed from this situation, I want to share with you a piece of wisdom if you’re currently experiencing the burden of debt…it IS possible to overcome it.

What is the Easy Thing to do?


During those days where I felt like I had a piano sitting on my chest, I had nightly discussions with my roommates for what seemed like months. My final credit card had gone into collections and they were calling me morning, noon and night.

They wanted their money and I completely understand that. I was like a drug addict who wanted the rush of scoring my drug of choice and taking it in. My drug of choice was credit cards and I was treating them like Monopoly money throwing them around without a care in the world.

The easy thing to do was to give up and declare bankruptcy. That option seemed like a pool of fresh water in a barren desert. I foolishly thought that it would solve all of my problems and I could wipe the slate clean and go on to focus on my student loan debt.

The problem was this option would cost money, and sadly, I could not even afford the filing fees. I remember asking my roommate in a roundabout way if he would loan me the money and he thankfully shook some reason into me.

While declaring bankruptcy would have been the easy way out, what would it say about me and about my character if I were to just walk away? After all, I am the one who signed the dotted line to get that shiny new credit card and no one held a gun to my head.

The onus was on me to walk the fiery coals and not go for the tempting easy way out, but to be a man of my word and work to pay off that debt.

A Paradigm Shift is Needed


The process of paying off my credit card debt was not an easy one by any stretch. It required a complete shift in thinking and a new mentality was needed on my part. I needed to change my mindset of reckless spending to one of restrained living.

I had to change my focus from what I did not have to what I wanted in the future and that required a paradigm shift. As an aside, from someone who works in the advertising industry, companies spend literally billions of dollars a year trying to convince you that you “need” something to fill a supposed void in your life. I fell prey to that, in my darkest days, all too often and it works to a certain extent.

It took me realizing that the shiny new whatever rarely made me happy in the long run and while it felt fun to buy something new, my purchases must be made in reason and wisely. This shift in thinking took me from being a spender to being a saver.

In the early days it meant that I stayed home, I did what I could to avoid spending money and over time, day by day it became just a little easier. It was that paradigm shift that helped me see the direness of my situation and moved me to change my spend-happy ways.

What Will it Require of Me?


My friend Kathleen wrote a few weeks ago about the stress and stigma that can come with something like credit card debt. I can relate to that stress. I woke up at night in cold sweats because I was so stressed over how I was going to repay this mountain of debt.

*Related: Looking for a cheap cable alternative that offers local channels? Check out our Hulu TV channels guide here for why they’re a great solution to cut the cord.*

Added to that I had student loans that were on deferral because I could not afford them. If I had any hair (I shave my hair pretty close to being bald) it would’ve most certainly been pulled out.

What I soon realized was that paying off this debt would require all of me. Not to get all Dave Ramsey on you, but it required the speed of a gazelle. I had to be creative and do anything I could, within reason and legality, to get more money to throw at the debt.

I sold my plasma for several months, I sold my TV and I sold my high school class ring in addition to using money received for birthdays to pay off the debt. Slaying this beast of credit card debt required a laser like focus that would kill the beast I alone had created. Looking back this focus took nearly four years of my life to become free of credit card debt.

You may be asking yourself why I am sharing such heavy and personal information on a Monday morning. I share it because I know that there are people who’re struggling with this today. I look at my traffic stats regularly and every day, without fail, some of my most viewed posts are the ones that have to do with repaying debt and saving money. It is pervasive in our society, almost like a rite of passage.

We all seem to either know someone who has dealt with a mountain of debt or we have had to pay one down ourselves. Not everyone has had credit card debt as bad as mine, but many have had debt from things like student loans, medical bills or car loans that they’re either dealing with now or have dealt with in the past.

My message to those dealing with debt now is that there IS light at the end of the tunnel. While I do not know each of your personal situations, I do know that there is almost always a way to earn more money and slay that beast of debt.

My message is to keep fighting the good fight and that overwhelming feeling of having a piano on your chest, or a mountain on your shoulders will winnow away over time. There will be times you want to give up, I dealt with that myself.

My encouragement to you during those times is to envision what your debt-free life will look like and put your head down to tackle that beast of debt. As a person who is standing on the other end of the tunnel and now, thankfully, free of that piano…it IS worth it and the freedom is like no other.

I am here waiting on the other side for you.


Have you faced a mountain of debt? How did you get out from under it?


Photo courtesy of: Andres. Thor

The following two tabs change content below.

John is the founder of Frugal Rules, a dad, husband and veteran of the financial services industry whose writing has been featured in Forbes, CNBC, Yahoo Finance and more.

Passionate about helping people learn from his mistakes, John shares financial tools and tips to help you enjoy the freedom that comes from living frugally. One of his favorite tools is Personal Capital , which he used to plan for retirement and keep track of his finances in less than 15 minutes each month.

Another one of John's passions is helping people save $80 per month by axing their expensive cable subscriptions and replacing them with more affordable ones, like Hulu with Live TV.

Latest posts by John Schmoll (see all)


  • Jon @ MoneySmartGuides says:

    I got into a bunch of credit card debt myself right after graduating. I was living a lie for a while, using the “high” of buying things to make me happy. One day, the light bulb went off and I realized that the “high” I got from buying things was short lived and I needed to focus on things that would bring me pleasure for the long-term. It isn’t easy to change things, but it is well worth it in the end.

    • John says:

      Your story sounds a lot like mine Jon. It wasn’t easy, but once that light bulb went off it took no time for me to put my focus on working down that debt.

  • DC @ Young Adult Money says:

    Very inspiring post. I have not been in credit card debt, but I certainly can relate with other debt that I have. It’s sometimes hard to envision paying off my last student loan, but I know the day will come. I think the hardest part of debt is realizing “what if I didn’t have that monthly cash outflow?” Getting out of debt seems like it can really be freeing.

    • John says:

      Thanks DC! That student loan debt was a close second to the credit cards for me. I know it’s hard to envision it, but the end result is so worth it in the long run.

  • Ashley Park says:

    Great post John, I think it’s important for people to understand that no debt problem is too big, it will just take longer to resolve.

    • John says:

      Thanks Ashley! I agree, in general, not debt problem is too big. I know it might feel that way, but it is possible to knock it out

  • Greg@ClubThrifty says:

    Luckily, I’ve never been in a huge amount of credit card debt. To be honest, I think Holly saved me from it because I was on that path. However, I do believe that making any big changes include making a lifestyle change – an mental adjustment. Whether that is with dieting, finance, etc. you need to make the shift. Without it, you’re bound to simply yo-yo between good habits and bad.

    • John says:

      I agree Greg, it does require that mental adjustment. The yo-yo analogy is a great one. You might see some success with it, but you’ll ultimately not slow it until you have that shift in attitude and thinking.

  • Laurie @thefrugalfarmer says:

    John, THANK YOU for sharing your story. Today is one of the days we’re feeling like we’ll never see the light at the end of the tunnel. You’ve helped immensely to get us back in the game emotionally. 🙂

    • John says:

      Not a problem Laurie! As one who has been through it, it is possible. I know it may be difficult in the middle of it, but let the end result drive your tenacity. Just remember, you & Rick have taken the biggest step of all…seeing the need for change. That already puts you on solid ground to slay it.

  • pauline says:

    Congratulations on taking the responsible way and not an easy out. I have thankfully not been in that situation but can imagine how stressful it is, I used to have that stress about income projection when I was not in stable employment and wondering whether you will be able to pay your bills is daunting.

    • John says:

      Thanks Pauline. It was not an easy choice, but I am so glad that is what I chose now that I look back at it. If I would’ve chosen the easy way out then there would’ve been no opportunity for what I’ve been able to learn.

  • Glen @ Monster Piggy Bank says:

    I am doing my best to join you on the other side John, not long to go now.

    I think the biggest thing is believing that you can do it and making an action plan / setting realistic goals to get you on your way.

    • John says:

      I would agree Glen. Admitting the issue is the major step. From there, you need to come up with that plan and setting goals in order to make your dream a reality.

  • William @ Bite the Bullet says:

    Great post. Here’s the hidden benefit of tackling your debt: like you said, it’s not an overnight thing. Here’s the benefit of that: by the time your debt is gone, you have acquired solid new habits. (Not you John, you anybody)

    And if you keep on with those habits and put the money that went to debt into investing, you can’t help but succeed as years go by.

    • John says:

      Thanks William! I agree about the new habits. I look back at what I learned over the span of my debt repayment and I can track back many new things I learned. Turning those towards investing is definitely a wise approach to take.

  • Girl Meets Debt says:

    I am doing my best to meet you on the other side too John 🙂 My consumer debt will probably be paid off by the end of 2013 and then I can concentrate on my student loans. You nailed it when you said a paradigm shift is needed to change your spending ways. Nothing magically happened to me overnight to change me from a spender to a saver except I just realize that as hard as it may be I can pay off this debt. It’s hard but not impossible.

    • John says:

      I know you are GMD, and I think you’re doing great. Having that consumer debt taken care of will be great. I remember when I paid my cards off it was such a relief that I could then throw all of my focus at my loans. I agree, it is hard, (there is no doubt about that) but definitely not impossible. Keep up the great work! 🙂

  • Alan@escapingmydebt says:

    Great post John. My wife and I are still on the wrong side of things but slowly we are going to get to financial freedom. Just may take a little longer than expected. A think it was about 18 months to 2 years ago when things clicked for us that we really needed to get out of debt as we were still living free.

    • John says:

      Thanks Alan! Having that click go off in your head is definitely what it takes to achieve victory over the debt. Keep up the great work, the freedom is worth it.

  • Grayson @ Debt Roundup says:

    Good post John. I remember those days. I just kept spending because I didn’t want to face the facts. Once I finally put everything on paper and cried a little because I realized I would be paying debt until I am dead, I finally just said NO! I didn’t want to do it anymore, so I decided to work my way out. It was tough, but I did it with a lot of encouragement from my wife and just watching my spending.

    • John says:

      Thanks Grayson! I can definitely relate to that situation. I saw it as being willing to continue living life that way or achieving freedom from the slavery I was putting myself in. I agree, it is tough, but well worth it in the end.

  • Kim@Eyesonthedollar says:

    I didn’t discover the power credit can have over you until after school, but you still end up in the same situation. I always thought of an elephant standing on my chest instead of a piano, but any large, heavy object will do. It does seem hopeless, but I’m glad you chose to take responsibility for your debts. I don’t judge anyone who has to file for bankruptcy, but I think I would have felt like I still needed to repay my debts. I used to think credit cards could buy fun and happiness, but it’s really much more fun on the other side.

    • John says:

      I could not agree more Kim, the fun is on the other side. I agree, that I do not judge people for declaring bankruptcy, as we all have different situations. I look back though, and am thankful for all the lessons I learned by going through it.

  • David says:

    Great Post John! When I first started dating my girlfriend, I found out how much debt she was in and what has caused her to accumulate all that debt. I helped her put it all on paper and worked out numbers with her. She was a student at the time so I helped her make some payments once our relationship became more serious and now she is almost fully debt free.
    The best way to approach debt is to tackle it head-on!

    • John says:

      Thanks David! Putting the numbers on paper is painful, but it is so helpful. I agree, tackling it head on is the way to go. Thanks for stopping by!

      • David says:

        No problem. I am in the process of putting together a similar piece on tackling debt and different strategies for it. I’ll let you know when I am done!

  • Jim says:

    Well said John, I think that education is the key here. I was never taught the pitfalls of debt from my parents, probably because they were struggling with it. There needs to be a channel for kids to learn this stuff, because it doesnt seem like they do at school. Maybe there are organizations who go into schools and have seminars to teach kids the ins and outs of debt, if not there needs to be.

    • John says:

      Thanks Jim! I agree, that education is vital with this so we can overcome it as a society. I think some level of basics needs to be taught in schools, but should be done hand in hand with teaching about it in the home.

  • Jacob@CashCowCouple says:

    Great post John! I think it should inspire others to follow in your path.

    My wife and I don’t have the credit card debt but student loan debt is just as heavy. We’re paying it off as we can. Hopefully it will be gone in about a year…

    • John says:

      Thanks Jacob, that’s my hope!

      Student loan debt can be just as debilitating. Keep up the great work and it’ll be well worth it once you have it paid off.

  • Cat Alford (@BudgetBlonde) says:

    Such a great (and beautifully written!) post, John. I think this will definitely help a lot of people. I get really anxious about my student loan debt, but I’m working and I’m side hustling, and I try to give myself a break and remind myself that I’m truly doing everything I can to knock it out. We were credit card debt free last year, so that’s been a huge relief!

    • John says:

      Thanks so much for your kind words Cat! That is my hope, to be able to help people. I remember feeling so ashamed, yet so many others are struggling with the same basic thing. It sounds like you’re doing exactly what you need to be doing and it’ll be so worth it in the end. 🙂

  • Michelle says:

    Great post. We’ve never had credit card debt thankfully. I can’t imagine the feeling and stress that are caused from it!

  • Mackenzie says:

    Credit card debt is the absolute worst! And for some reason, college life seemed to fuel it. At least it did for me 🙁

    Great post John!

  • anna says:

    Love this post – thank you for being so open and honest. I am on my last year of paying down this debt (at least determined for it to be my last year), but we had a similar penchant for paying in plastic. Congrats on finishing your debt payoff, and hope to meet you on that side soon!

    • John says:

      Thanks Anna! I found that I learned most from those who were open and honest, so my hope was to be the same way. That’s awesome you’re in your last year…that light at the end of the tunnel must be getting brighter and brighter. 🙂

  • Shannon @ The Heavy Purse says:

    I don’t think this was a heavy post for a Monday but a beautiful, inspiring post. While I have been fortunate to avoid credit card debt of my own, I see it every day in my job. I know the weight it carries on people because I see it in how they walk, stand and sit. It crushes them and some don’t even realize it because they are still at that point where they believe their credit card is buying them happiness. Everyone experiences a different wake-up call and it is tremendously scary to look at a mountain of debt and try to figure a way out. But as you noted – it can be done. There is light at the end of tunnel. But you have to want it, be willing to make some sacrifices and change your mindset. It makes me sad that are so many people silently suffering through this, but I am so glad that there are places, such as here, where they can find hope.

    • John says:

      Thanks so much for you kind words Shannon! I agree that you can see it in how people carry themselves and I knew it did with me as well. People do have to want it and they do need to change their mindset on it. Without that change, success is much less likely in my opinion.

  • Edward Antrobus says:

    The problem comes in when you’ve buried yourself and want to dig out, but companies just won’t work with you. Yes it is your fault for getting into the position you are in, but they need to realize that if they don’t meet you somewhere in the middle, they may never get their money back. I’ve had companies that would rather sue than take a payment plan. When my wife declared bankruptcy, she was really upset about not paying back the legitimate debts that she accumulated, but we couldn’t manage it any more when the company her car loan (that she had been lied to about the size of the payments) was with absolutely refused to work with her in anyway.

    • John says:

      That’s a great point Edward! I can understand that they want their money, but you get a lot more with honey than vinegar and this is certainly one of those cases.

  • Jordann @ My Alternate Life says:

    This is a great post because maintaining enthusiasm about debt repayment can be really, really tough sometimes. I’m going through a period of particularly low enthusiasm right now and it’s tough to stay interested in doing everything I absolutely can to earn extra income to pay off my debt. I’m going to keep plugging away at that last $12,000 though, and hope that my enthusiasm will return soon.

    • John says:

      Thanks Jordann! I can totally understand, keeping that enthusiasm can be and is tough…no doubt about it. I just encourage you to keep in front of you what that day will look like when you make that final payment and the balance will be 0. There’s nothing quite like that feeling. Keep up the great work Jordann – you’re in the home stretch! 🙂

  • Nick @ says:

    John, thanks so much for sharing your story! I know how you felt and it is definitely no fun! I went all crazy gazelle on my debt once too and man does it feel good to get out of debt! To those who are still struggling: keep fighting, it can be done!

    • John says:

      Not a problem Nick! I agree, it’s not fun but it is worth it in the long run. Your message is a great one…keep up the fighting indeed!

  • Kay Lynn says:

    Debt can be overcome, but one way to get started is to break it up into little pieces. I like the snowball method for that reason. You start feeling better about yourself when you get that first bill paid off and it gets better from there.

  • Brick By Brick Investing | Marvin says:

    Thanks for sharing your story John! We’re currently under what I call a mountain of debt aka mortgage. You’re absolutely right you need to start somewhere and change you way of thinking. While we are not hurting by any means we have constructed a plan to pay off our debt ASAP.

    • John says:

      Not a problem Marvin! You’re exactly right, it requires a shift in thinking and commitment to being willing to act on it.

  • Money Bulldog says:

    I do believe that whether its to a member of family or to a credit card company you should make every possible effort to repay it your debt. I like what you say about the reflection on your character if you didn’t. I also think that those who take the easy road out will be more likely to make the same mistakes again in future. Great post mate.

    • John says:

      I would generally agree Adam. I am sure there may be some extenuating circumstances, but think “you” need to make every effort to repay your debt. You’re exactly right about taking the easy way out. All that does is wipe the slate clean and not deal with the underlying issues behind the debt.

  • Justin says:

    John, congrats on the new gig! That’s pretty cool.
    We’re currently paying down debt acquired from our wonderful roof. I do feel a little embarrassed, but writing about it and talking with others makes me feel less ashamed. I does feel like an elephant on our back and I cannot wait to get rid of it.

    • John says:

      Thanks Justin, I was pretty excited to get it!
      I can imagine that you can’t wait to free yourself of the debt. I know it’s easy to feel ashamed, I know that I did. But, you’re doing exactly what you need to be doing and it’ll be so worth it in the end.

  • MMD @ IRA vs 401k Central says:

    John, I can’t image what this is like for some people, and I can sympathize. I’ve thankfully always been blessed with this obsession with paying off my credit cards in full every time. I think if more people knew about the dangers of interest and how out of control this situation can get, things might be different. This post is a great motivator that help is out there.

    • John says:

      Thanks MMD, that is my hope. I agree that it starts with education and people understanding what it truly takes to get out from under massive debt.

  • Budget and the Beach says:

    Great post! I think there are so many people who will benefit from reading this because I’m sure there are times where paying off debt seems impossible…and insurmountable task. If there is a will, there is a way. It is possible. I’ve never had that crushing debt (although I’ve had debt), but I had enough to know I don’t want it ever again.

    • John says:

      Thanks Tonya, that is my hope and desire. It can seem impossible, and that is when it’s easiest to give up. If you stick with it though, it’s well worth the lessons learned.

  • KK @ Student Debt Survivor says:

    Well said. Love reading stories about people have have beat the debt “beast”. When I was struggling with $30k in student debt I too felt like I had a piano, or a 600 pound student debt gorilla sitting on my chest. When I finally decided to buckle down and pay it all of my life changed. I was happier, less stressed and more fun to be around.

  • Canadian Budget Binder says:

    I was watching a documentary on the television tonight and it went about how in 1984 the word “shopoholic” was coined and credit cards were being used more than ever. There was nothing stopping consumers when it came to spending and swiping their cards and it was the eighties that the height of the debt mountain sky-rocketed into full gear. Many paid for that and continue to pay and some are just starting that process down that dark road. There is hope you are right and getting out of debt takes everything that you’ve got and reminded me of when I quit smoking. Even though I thought I might fail or pick up another smoke if I wanted to succeed and beat the demon I had to be optimistic and find every way possible to get from where I was to where I wanted to be. Great post mate!

    • John says:

      That’s interesting Mr. CBB. It makes complete sense that the phrase was coined during the 80’s and fits well with what I remember. That’s a great correlation between spending & smoking. I think spending can be just as addictive and while not potentially deadly, it can bring lost lasting results.

  • Do or Debt says:

    Thanks for being so brave and sharing your story! It’s nice to hear how people have come out of debt. As someone who is still very much in debt, I have to stay focused and remember it takes time and other people have gone down this same path. Sometimes it feel so lonely and depressing and debt fatigue is real. I definitely do keep the idea of me being debt free in the forefront of my mind….I will cry and have a party once it’s all done! I’m so glad to know you are doing so well. I think my favorite point is having a paradigm shift. I’ve paid off 5k since January and while I don’t think I can keep up that pace, I didn’t think it was possible to pay that much right now. Changing my mindset and my relationship to my debt has helped me so much.

    • John says:

      Paying off $5k in four months is AWESOME! Sure, you may not be able to keep the same pace at all times, it’s vital not to look at as a sprint, but a marathon. That fatigue is real and it can be taxing, but during those dark times remember why you’re working so hard and remember to keep that vision in front of you. Keep up the great work!

  • Kyle James | says:

    Great post John. I know there are a ton of people out there walking this path right now figuring out how they are going to get out of debt. This post serves as a great testimony that it can be done if your mindset is changed. Great stuff.

    • John says:

      Thanks Kyle! I know there are and that’s why I shared my story…as a hope to encourage others that, while difficult, it is possible to overcome.

  • Jake Erickson says:

    Wow, what an incredible story. Very inspiring. I like how you had the “never give up” attitude and evenutally made it out of that mountain of debt. Luckily my wife and I have never had much for credit card debt, but we did have quite a bit of school loan debt that we are finally out from under. Congrats on getting out and hopefully this story inspires many others to follow in your footsteps.

    • John says:

      Thanks Jake! That’s my hope…to be able to inspire others and for them to see that while difficult, it’s not impossible. Congrats on paying off the student loan debt!

  • Todd - Fearless Men says:

    I just want to say your featured photo was a great find! Perfect for the post.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *